Once fugitive banker Aubrey Lee Price gets 30 years

“Awesome,” says one of Price’s Ponzi scheme victims, on learning the sentence

This morning, U.S. District Court Judge B. Avant Edenfield sentenced Aubrey Lee Price—the Georgia pastor who became an investment adviser, then a banker, then a fugitive—to a maximum of 30 years in prison stemming from a Ponzi scheme that evoked comparisons to the one masterminded by Bernie Madoff. The amount of restitution Price will owe to those he swindled is still to be determined, though it will likely be in the $46 million range.

Courtesy photograph
Photograph courtesy of the Glynn County Sheriff’s Office

Beginning in 2011, Price was a director of the now defunct Montgomery Bank & Trust in Ailey, Georgia, and that remained his chief occupation until he disappeared on June 16, 2012—presumed dead by many, including his family. Price left behind suicide notes, a wife, four children, and a long-suffering community bank on the brink of failure.

In an exclusive series of jailhouse interviews with Atlanta magazine last February and March, Price claimed that he was a drug runner, a pimp, and a cage fighter, among other unlikely vocations, during what he called his “departure” from the seemingly simple and successful life he’d known for four and a half decades. His supposed aliases included Jason, Diesel, and Gator, and he confessed to taking cocaine, smoking marijuana, and becoming addicted to Adderall while on the lam.

On December 31, 2013, 18 months after faking his death by appearing to jump off a Key West ferry, Price was pulled over in Brunswick, Georgia, for driving a truck with illegally tinted windows. He eventually pleaded guilty to one count each of securities fraud, wire fraud, and bank fraud.

Photograph by Charles Bethea
Photograph by Charles Bethea

During today’s sentencing, Price—clean-cut, but shrunken and pale—spoke for nearly 45 minutes, asking for leniency, spending more time defending his actions than taking responsibility for them: “The problem is, we didn’t know some things about the bank,” he said. “Some things were hidden from us.” He continually attempted to shift the narrative: “My story will be about restitution. The only life I have left is future life. The past is gone.”

But for his victims, of course, the past is very much part of the present. Some 20 of them—investors in PFG, the investment firm Price founded before taking control of the bank in Ailey—were in court, and three spoke at the sentencing, two expressing palpable anger. A former Delta employee named Mary Jo Peters, 65, had known Price for a decade and considered him both an adviser and a friend before learning of his deceit and her crippling losses. “He murdered my future,” Peters said. “My life is now forever changed and will not get better. It’s like he gave me an incurable disease.”

Another, Sherry Thomason, 64, asked the court to show Price mercy, despite having lost all $500,000 of her and her husband’s retirement savings through placing her trust in his schemes. “Financially, the loss was incomprehensible,” she said, “and emotionally it was heartbreaking. We believe we were victims. But we don’t believe [Price] intended to swindle us. And we take him at his word that he is repentant now. We ask the court to consider leniency.”

The hard facts in the case, including admissions by Price himself, made that difficult. In an unpublished memoir—a draft of which he provided to Atlanta magazine—Price admitted that he “deceitfully devised a plan to use the bank’s securities account, and began trading those funds with hopes of making bigger returns to build the bank’s capital back up and pay investors back.” At the same time, he claimed he too was a victim: Both in his interview with Atlanta magazine and before Judge Edenfield, Price claimed he’d been duped into investing in the doomed middle Georgia bank by Pete Robinson, a friend and adviser of Governor Nathan Deal, who is related to the bank’s founders. Price’s crimes have led to a slew of civil lawsuits, some of which involve Robinson, and will likely drag on for years.

Many things in this case continue to be hard to believe: a preacher known for his mission and his charity work fleecing his flock; the same man fleeing the law and allegedly going into business with a cocaine cartel operator in South America; and then heading back to the States to start a small-time marijuana grow operation, which he described to me as “one of the best times of my life.” But most difficult to swallow: the notion that Price, nearing fifty, will ever repay the tens of millions of dollars of his clients’ money that he squandered.

While in custody in Statesboro’s Bulloch County Jail back in February, Price articulated one possible restitution plan—a job as, yes, a research analyst for hedge funds. From prison. “I have three job offers already,” he told me then. “I think I could make a half million a year writing incredible research. Once I study and get a rhythm of the market, I’m pretty good. I ain’t gonna lie about that. I was accurate more than 53 percent of the time. Right now I’ve got several trades I’d like to put out there, but I’m not going to. I want to make money on them myself. One is the trade of a lifetime.”

Not surprisingly, when I prodded him for details, Price demurred. “No, I’m not giving up my information quite yet.” His family, he said, were his greatest concern: “My wife brings home $2,300 a month from her teacher salary. I need to help her, my kids, my dad. I will find a job. There are lots of things I can do. I can get certified as a tax preparer. I could do my former clients’ taxes for them for free. But I want credit.” He paused. “Or I can sit on my ass and just die in prison. Not help anybody. I can do that. I’m embarrassing myself, letting people know the sins of my life. I should get compensated the right way. Maybe save half of one percent for me to pay my other debts and have something for when I get out. If I get out.”

In court were Price’s wife and three of their four children. From their seats in the third row of benches, they showed little emotion and spoke infrequently among themselves. They looked, collectively, like the resigned victims of an emotional siege. They declined to speak to the media.

Meanwhile, outside the courtroom, the money chasers are still chasing the money. On October 21, five of Price’s former hedge fund clients won an arbitration award of more than $800,000, collectively, against FSC Securities Corporation—a brokerage firm that once employed Price—for its failure to prevent its brokers from funneling millions in FSC customer accounts to Price Financial Group. The majority of his victims, however, remain wanting.

According to the court-appointed receiver’s most recent status report, filed in late July, insurance companies are fighting to recover the more than $1.8 million in life insurance proceeds they paid following Price’s faked death. There are also ongoing disputes between the receivership and the FDIC about its role in the bank’s collapse, and attempts to obtain and sell farms in Venezuela purchased by Price, as well as a property he owned on Florida’s Longboat Key and a number of other minor real estate holdings. More than $1.6 million is due to the receiver from KM Homes, an Atlanta homebuilder tied to Price, by the end of this year. The receivership has thus far collected more than $2.4 million in cash. But lawyer fees are taking a big chunk out of that; the receiver, Melanie Damian, incurred more than $165,000 in fees during just a three-month period ending in July.

Michael Smith, a victim in his sixties who spoke before the court today—at one point loudly admonishing Price with the commandment “Thou shalt not steal”—was content with the sentence. “He’ll be in jail until long after I’m gone,” Smith said.

“Awesome,” Wendy Cross, a food truck operator who lives in Decatur and who lost $364,000 to Price, said of the verdict. “I wanted him to get a year for every million that he stole.” She couldn’t talk long. The lunch rush was arriving.

The question, for some, remains: Why would a man once beloved by his family, friends, and parishioners lie for so long, about matters of such importance? Federal prosecutor Brian Rafferty, speaking at the end of today’s hearing, offered an answer: “He’s been lying to people for days, months, years. He woke up every morning with a new lie. But the curious thing about this case is: He didn’t do it for greed. There’s no evidence of that. He’s here now because of his own pride and arrogance. He couldn’t admit that he just wasn’t good at what he did.”

Shaking a bit as his sentence was read, Price walked quickly out of the courtroom, never once glancing back at his family.